Open access and you

Dear colleagues,

Open access (OA) is when publications are available to anyone on the web, at no cost. You might not have been paying much attention to the emergence of OA, but it could become much more important sooner than you imagine.

Maybe some of your publications are OA already. You might have published in an online journal, or perhaps put versions of your articles on Research Online. If your publications are in print only, or available only through databases, they don't count as OA. A member of the public would have to pay to obtain access.

Having your publications free online is a great advantage: people around the world can read them with no financial obstacles, increasing the visibility and impact of your work, often increasing citations and sometimes leading to valuable responses including ideas, research material, students and collaborations.

OA potentially transforms the conventional model of publishing. Currently, many professional societies have journals, some of them prestigious. These journals are most commonly published by Elsevier, Sage, Blackwell or some other big publisher, at great expense to purchasers. The curious thing is that nearly all the work to produce journal articles is done by academics, at no cost to publishers. Researchers write the articles and academics serve as editors and referees, and their employers pay for salaries and equipment, so what is the value added by publishers? Not much, which is why their profits are sky-high.

In the OA model, a professional society publishes the journal free online. There is no commercial publisher to take a cut. Not surprisingly, the big publishers are doing what they can to resist OA.

Librarians have a special interest in these matters, because the cost of books and journal database subscriptions is enormous. If OA became the standard, it would transform library expenses.

There is a huge amount of material available about OA. I was inspired to write this comment by a recent article "The inevitability of open access", by David W. Lewis. Lewis argues that OA may become dominant much sooner than people expect.

First some definitions. Direct gold OA is when a journal makes all articles free on publication. For example, issues of Australian Universities' Review are free online immediately on publication, as well as available in print to union members. Some journals make articles free after a time delay, for example 6 or 12 months, a model called delayed gold OA.

Hybrid OA is when authors have the option to pay a fee to provide OA. I have an article appearing in Health Promotion International and was given the option of paying $3000 to have the article immediately available free to readers. Since I won't be paying, readers will have to purchase a copy or use a proprietary database.

Then there is green OA, when authors archive versions of their articles, typically the final submitted version but not the publisher's pdf. You can do this via Research Online or put text on your own website.

With books, options are more limited. There are some university publishers that provide direct gold OA, such as ANU e-Press: books are available as a free download and also available for purchase via print-on-demand. However, ANU e-Press will only publish works by staff at the Australian National University. Like other such e-presses, it is an in-house operation. For staff at the University of Wollongong, there are no university presses - or indeed other high-status presses - that provide direct gold OA. What I have done most recently is find a publisher who likes my work enough to allow me to put the text on my website.

Having put full text of my publications on my website for the past 15 years - implementing green OA - I'm obviously a supporter. It sure beats the previous system of distributing my articles by making photocopies and posting them to interested individuals. Now my papers are read by thousands, and all I have to do is prepare the text and post it online.

Lewis argues that OA is inevitable, and coming soon, on the basis of work by Clayton Christensen on disruptive innovations. I won't go through the analysis, which is fascinating, except to say that Lewis thinks gold OA is a disruptive innovation and, on the basis of the expansion of OA so far, predicts that 90% of articles may be gold OA by the early 2020s. That's very soon.

Incidentally, ERA - the Australian government's Excellence in Research for Australia - is pushing researchers in the opposite direction. By encouraging publication in high-status journals, nearly all controlled by big publishers, it is making researchers less ready for the coming OA era.

OA may or may not be dominant within a decade. If you accept Lewis's argument and assume it is, what are the implications? Here I speculate on how a researcher might plan their career taking OA as a coming force.

* OA publications will gain greater credibility. Currently, applicants for jobs and promotions assume that traditional journals, mostly controlled by the big publishers with limited OA, are the highest priority. In an OA-dominated world, the venue of publication will matter less and impact will matter more.

* Performance metrics will more likely involve impact. Google Scholar provides an accessible method of measuring citation counts and is rapidly gaining support over the counts by Scopus and Thomson Reuters (formerly ISI), which hide behind proprietary screens. Google Scholar covers a much wider range of academic sources, which means impact is where you find it. With more OA publications, it is possible that other metrics, for example involving links and comments as well as citations, may gain support. The implication is to publish where your work will have the greatest visibility and generate the greatest interest, not necessarily in the highest status venue.

* Publications available via OA can be read by anyone anywhere in the world. This means multiple readerships, potentially from different groups - students, business people, citizens and activists as well as scholars - in different cultural contexts. This means that those who can write in a way that speaks to diverse audiences, or speaks to non-academic audiences with a special interest in the topic, will have a wider uptake of their work. This may be seen more positively.

* Peer review may be opened up. Already, post-publication peer review occurs in some circumstances, when bloggers comment on published papers. This process may accelerate. Publication then becomes a stage in an ongoing process of exposition, comment and improved exposition. This is not new: scholars have long learned from comments on their work and then produced more in-depth and insightful treatments. With OA, this process can be greatly accelerated. The implication is that it can be valuable to include open peer review into research planning.

* Accessible scholarship may become more highly valued. Currently, it is quite acceptable to write articles so turgid and jargon-filled that no one would want to read them except other researchers - and maybe not even them. No doubt this form of publication will continue, as it serves a need within specialist communities. What may change is that different styles gain increasing acceptance. Introducing new data or framework via a discursive, chatty style could become a valued approach. This would be, in part, a return to writing styles by scholars common more than a half century ago.

If these sorts of changes are coming, it makes sense to be part of the change, rather than being left behind. What does this mean in the short term? The most obvious implication is to put all your publications online, using the university's Research Online or perhaps setting up your own website. This isn't gold OA but will help you appreciate the research implications of OA, for example when people, having read your work, contact you.

Another implication is to put a priority on publishing in gold OA outlets. This is not always possible, but when there's a choice, it's worth considering the venue that gives free access.

It is also worthwhile gaining experience in making accessible comments. You can propose articles for online forums such as On Line Opinion and The Conversation. You can learn what sorts of contributions stimulate lots of relevant comments - and you can learn from the comments made. Commenting and being commented on will become ever more important in an OA world.

Finally, you can think about the content and style of your work. Who is your ultimate audience? Perhaps you don't care about readers, but only want articles for your cv. But if impact metrics become more important, just having something on your cv is only the beginning: having an impact becomes part of the package. So think again - who would you like reading and commenting on your work?

There are also implications for institutions, which can mandate use of green OA depositories or provide incentives to publish in gold OA journals, among other options. I won't discuss this here. University of Wollongong policy makers seem oriented to proprietary and restrictive approaches to work produced by staff, and are unlikely to be early movers in relation to OA.

With the rise of OA, opportunities are increasing. It makes sense to take this into account in your research planning.

12 September 2012

P.S. Watch out for "predatory" OA journals, designed only to make money from authors. You may have received emails soliciting contributions, with the promise of prompt refereeing and publication. If you are suspicious, look at what has appeared in the journal already, or check Beall's List of Predatory Open-access Publishers. A useful rule is to be sure to receive good quality referees' reports before paying any fees.

For useful feedback, I thank Xiaoping Gao, Anne-Wil Harzing, David Lewis, Ben Morris, Michael Organ and Swati Parashar.

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